Cheese Rolls: New Zealand's Nostalgic Afternoon Snack

If you've ever been homesick, you know the importance of incorporating some home-styled comfort food into your diet. Quality caloric comfort foods are able to give you a sense of nostalgia while filling you up with plenty of sugars and carbohydrates. And, it seems the running trend when it comes to global comfort food is that nearly every culture has a go-to dough and cheese combination. From American pizza to France's croque monsieur to Brazilian cheese bread, it seems we all want to enjoy this unbeatable combo.

While it's clear we all love a bit of bread-y comfort, New Zealand's cheese roll may just be the one to reign supreme. You may be quick to think this humble snack simply looks like the doing of a hungry, rushed college student. However, the flavors present in this New Zealand classic are unlike anywhere else in the world. The roll's exterior is constructed with white bread that's toasted until golden with butter. Inside is a gooey cheddar cheese sauce infused with a surprising ingredient: onion soup powder.

History of cheese rolls

While cheese rolls can be found throughout New Zealand, they are of particular culinary significance in the Southland, a region at the Southern tip of the country's South Island. Here, nature abounds with a variety of geographical landscapes, from snowy mountains to stunning coastlines and pastures with grazing cows. And the region has also achieved a reputation as a foodie destination. With plentiful fresh seafood and homegrown produce, there are plenty of unique local favorites to enjoy here. However, it's the simple cheese roll that may be the most well-known food item this region produces.

Cheese rolls first originated in the 1930s when they debuted in regional cookbooks, but they didn't take off until mid-century. At this time, it was a popular snack enjoyed by kids at school, but eventually, everyone caught on.  Today, cheese rolls are a strong part of Southland's identity, and the nostalgic and humble combination continues to be rolled, grilled, and shared.

Ingredients in cheese rolls

When it comes to a classic cheese roll, no fancy ingredients are involved. You can likely make the dish with items already in your fridge and pantry. For constructing the outer layer, the bread most often used is simple white sandwich bread. This variety is flexible enough to roll up tightly and not break.

A nice handful of melty and grated cheddar cheese is the main ingredient for the cheese sauce. Evaporated milk is also added in, which provides a thick consistency and a creamy richness. The most unique ingredient is poured alongside the cheese and milk — onion soup powder. You can opt for an onion soup mix or a French onion dip powder, as both can work in this sauce. As a result, the insides of the snack become more concentrated in the onion flavor, creating the cheese roll's signature flavor. 

Some home chefs also add chopped onions for even more of a bite.The only other ingredient that is necessary is the butter spread on the outside of the bread. This gets the bread crispy and golden, making the crunchy outside the perfect textural contrast to the smooth inside.

How cheese rolls are made and eaten

The simple structure of a cheese roll may lead you to assumptions about how to construct one yourself. However, if you want to enjoy a cheese roll the proper way, there are a few steps to follow. To start, you should combine and heat all your cheese sauce ingredients in a pan on the stove. Once the ingredients are fully mixed, thick, and melty, the cheese sauce can be spread onto the slices of white bread. 

The slices then get rolled up tightly, and butter is applied to the outside. Now, it's ready to be heated — you can make yours on a baking tray, indoor grill, panini press, or a similar appliance. Once the roll is golden and crisp, it can be removed and enjoyed.

Cheese rolls can be chowed down on at any time of day, either for a quick lunch or snack. While some Southland restaurants are putting an elevated flair on the classic rolls — topping them with anything from fruits and nuts to truffle oil — purists simply love the unassuming bread and cheese combo that hits the spot each time.